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[Herald Interview] Inaugural meeting maps UNC 2.0 amid shifting security dynamics

Nov. 14, 2023 - 15:50 By Ji Da-gyum
South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik (fourth from left), US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (fourthfrom right), commander of the United Nations Command Paul LaCamera (far right) and Australian Minister for Defense Industry Pat Conroy (third from left) pose for a group photograph with other representatives at the inaugural defense ministerial meeting between South Korea and United Nations Command member states in Seoul on Tuesday. (Defense Ministry)

More than 70 years have passed since the United Nations Command was forged to assist South Korea in repelling North Korea's invasion in 1950.

The collective security establishment within the UN serves as the backbone of the security of the Korean Peninsula. But the time has come to discuss ways to renew its mission, which continues today amid rapidly changing security dynamics, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry, which hosted the inaugural defense ministerial meeting of UNC member states on Tuesday in Seoul.

"We aim to solicit perspectives on how, within the dynamic security environment, the UN Command can enhance its backing for the Republic of Korea," Heo Tae-keun, deputy minister for national defense policy at the Defense Ministry, said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Friday.

"We intend to delve into inventive strategies, assessing potential new initiatives, and identifying areas that require reinforcement, all geared towards amplifying the UN Command's support to South Korea in response to shifting security conditions," he said.

The UN Command was founded in July 1950, one month after North Korea's invasion, under UN Security Council Resolutions 82, 83 and 84. The situation marked the first-ever attempt at collective security within the UN system.

"The armistice agreement must be well-maintained to suppress war and manage crises. The UN Command has played its crisis management role successfully for 70 years," Heo said.

"As we convene for the first meeting, our initial focus would be on a comprehensive review of the UN Command's establishment, the pivotal roles it has played and an examination of any evolution or developments that have transpired since its inception to the present day," he said.

Heo Tae-keun, deputy minister for national defense policy at the Defense Ministry, delivers South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's speech on his behalf at the inaugural defense ministerial meeting between South Korea and United Nations Command member states in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap - Pool Photo)

In essence, the meeting served as the initial step in delving into the historical, current and future dimensions of the UNC, featuring the active participation of representatives from 17 member countries and South Korea as host country, in the run-up to the meeting.

The meeting aimed to underscore the indispensable role played by the UNC for seven decades since the signing of the 1953 armistice, which brought a cessation to the hostilities of the Korean War. The key missions of the UNC are to enforce the Armistice Agreement and provide military support and reinforcements in the event of war.

Another key goal was to reaffirm the commitment of UNC member states to providing military and other forms of support in case of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula by issuing a joint declaration. The commitment has not been reaffirmed since the 1953 Joint Policy Declaration that was signed in Washington.

"As 70 years have elapsed, the UN Command endures, witnessing shifts in the composition of its member states," Heo said. "The current member states of the UNC will collectively reaffirm the enduring validity of the commitments made to the Republic of Korea seven decades ago."

During the Korean War, 16 countries fought in the US-led UN Command with South Korea and six other countries that provided medical assistance. Of them, 17 have remained UNC member states.

The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs hosted a ceremony to honor the sacrifices of South Korea, the United States, and United Nations Member States' veterans who fought for South Korean security during the Korean War. The event took place to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War at Jangchung Arena, Seoul on June 25, 2023. (United Nations Command)

The Yoon government also took the meeting as an opportunity to reaffirm its solidarity with the UN Command and its policy direction.

"The UN Command, playing a positive role that aligns with our national interest, should develop and strengthen itself to perform its roles even more faithfully. Our fundamental direction is not to denigrate or weaken its role but rather to enhance and fortify it," Heo said. "With the transition of governments, matters concerning the UN Command are undergoing turbulence and evolving into areas of contention. I find this development highly undesirable."

The UNC's history is characterized by twists and turns, at times sparking heated debates. Under the previous Moon Jae-in government, relations with it became strained, with the administration publicly accusing it of impeding inter-Korean cooperation projects.

There are claims that the United States aims to revitalize the UNC under its leadership, seeking to maintain the presence of the US military even after the transfer of wartime operational control, or OPCON, to South Korea.

The Yoon Suk Yeol government regards the meeting as imperative, particularly in light of escalating nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, according to Heo.

"The military and security situation on the Korean Peninsula should be assessed as it is. The reality is that it's not a post-war scenario but rather an ongoing armistice, with the potential for a resumption (of fighting) at any time. North Korea possesses both the intent and capability for such actions," he said.

"In such circumstances, the UN Command stands as a truly formidable mechanism capable of preventing such occurrences," he added.

South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik delivers his welcoming remarks during the inaugural defense ministerial meeting between South Korea and United Nations Command member states in Seoul on Tuesday. (Defense Ministry)

The meeting also provided an opportunity to address uncertainties among some UN Command member states regarding the South Korean government's commitment to serving as the host nation for the UNC and aligning with the latter's revitalization program.

In 2015, Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, then-UNC commander, launched an endeavor to "revitalize" the UNC. As part of the UNC revitalization plan, there has been a notable expansion of its staff, not only from the US and other UNC member states but also in the appointment of additional senior officials exclusively dedicated to the UNC.

During the meeting, the Defense Ministry aimed to dispel uncertainties surrounding South Korea's position on the revitalization program, providing a clear endorsement of the initiative.

The Defense Ministry, for example, has engaged in discussions with the UNC regarding the deployment of South Korean military officials, including a general-level officer, to the UNC staff.

Heo explained that the meeting would serve as the platform to "demonstrate South Korea's commitment to making a more active contribution and to lay the foundations for achieving that goal."

Heo also underscored the existence of the UNC with the UN authority on the peninsula also plays a crucial role in garnering the international community's support for the policies of the South Korean government toward North Korea.

"Member countries have consistently recognized and condemned North Korea's nuclear and missile developments. Ultimately, this proactive stance goes beyond the condemnation by the 17 countries under the UN Command, garnering support from numerous countries worldwide," Heo said. "Looking ahead, there is a necessity to showcase their commitment even more robustly."